Jeff Mills: For Whom the Bells Toll
- Words: Matthew Schnipper
Rumor has it that when Jeff Mills plays "The Bells," crowds recognize the track within .37 seconds. If that's true, then playing the chiming anthem is probably quicker and more effective than waving.
"It's something I can use to say hello to the people," concurs the techno founder about his signature track. Made in 1994, it was not until spring of 1996 that "The Bells" saw official release on Mills' Purpose Maker imprint. (Before that, Mills played it from a custom 13" record.) He claims he's played the record every time he's DJed since he created it, and that it has never not worked.
Watching Mills play "The Bells" at Sonar, a performance documented on the DVD that Axis released to mark the track's 10-year anniversary–his claim is easy to believe. He's inside a monstrous dark room with big blue lights flashing. Enormous video screens behind Mills flash his name. The camera zooms to him, fingers quick and clean on the mixer, like dealing cards. We hear the recognizable plink and immediately everyone is yelling with hands in the air. The cheering is immeasurable, like Mills has just won the Super Bowl of techno. Essentially, playing "The Bells" turns any club into a 14-year-old's first rave in the woods.
Communal delight conquered, Mills returned to France in July 2005 to give "The Bells" a bit of an adult update, performing it (alongside numbers like "Amazon" and "Sonic Destroyer") live with the Montpellier Philharmonic Orchestra. A new DVD, Blue Potential, documents the collaboration.
During the performance, Mills wears a pastel polo shirt and green pants; he looks not unlike a J. Crew model. In the interviews that accompany Blue Potential, he comes off as outstandingly genial and happily modest–not dismissing his talent or worth, but certainly not drawing attention to it. There is an ineffable humility that comes from Mills, a total glee and thankfulness coupled with a slight bafflement that others–a whole team, even–might want to work on his work. Over the phone from his home in Berlin–punctuating his speech with frequent "umms" and "hmms"–he displays the same thoughtfulness he must have employed when mapping his songs into full orchestral compositions.
In that transcription process, Mills had minimal interaction with the orchestra members, a problem that is due to something larger than just a language barrier. "You generally work alone in this industry," he says. "Maybe it's just me, but I hear very little discussion about music, actually." He seems a bit sad, but mostly accepting of the solitary electronic-dance-music lifestyle.
It's a bizarre coda to his tender comments on the genre, one he has obviously had a strong hand in molding. When he and Robert Hood first starting making minimal techno, they consciously tried to make it "a tool to provoke a spiritual type of feeling," and he's unsure if it's accomplishing that now. Laughing, he finally leaves the subject of solitude, calling the making of techno simply "a one-man spaceship."
Blue Potential was initially inspired by Mills' rewriting of the soundtrack to Fritz Lang's 1927 film Metropolis in 2000, and many of the orchestral reworkings have a similar feel to them. The most striking moment, though, is to hear and watch the transformation of "The Bells," which becomes stouter when performed by 80 classical musicians. The video of the performance features a bald and focused French man hitting golden chimes, furrowed brow steady on the sheet music. Mills–in a suit jacket, with headphones on firmly–reaches between gear with arms outstretched, moving nimbly from knob to button, thoroughly in control. The string section rubs its bows sharply, and suddenly the most frequently caned techno song ever becomes a scary soundtrack to an imaginary movie. Performed at night, outside, and with the beautiful Pont du Gard illuminated in the background, the music Mills made with mid-'90s technology is warmly recreated for the ages. The crowd stands and jumps and hoots. Just like when he DJs, Mills is steady and thoroughly powerful. He knows how much a moment with the song means to its audience and he's careful with what he's doling out. But over the phone, Mills finally allows himself a bit of humble joy. "Even in a situation where 80 musicians are playing this track, people still recognize it," he says with a professorial giggle. "It's a great feeling."
More Words from the techno master.
On the Meaning of the Title Blue Potential
"It's in reference to the possibility of finding information [about] who we are or where we come from or where we're going, and looking to the things that are around us...to find answers."
On Melding Classical and Techno
"Whatever sound, whatever voice I can find to imitate what I am thinking–be it classical or electronic or acoustic–is applicable. I'm conscious of what sounds electronic, but not which percentage."
On Playing in New York City
"I grew up with this fantasy of what New York was like on Saturday night back in the '70s and early '80s. We would hear the stories about what was going on in this city. Then you have the chance to go there and play! It's a gift."
On the Future of Techno
"I had dinner with Richie [Hawtin] recently. We were comparing notes to see if we hear the same thing. I think we all agree that if electronic music survives the next few years it definitely has a life in the future."
On Plans For the Future
"I plan to play much more in America. I've never toured America. I've never been to certain parts of the country. I'm interested in going to see how people are."
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